Since taking control of the country in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has sought to solidify its claims on disputed territories (i.e. the "autonomous regions" of Xinjiang and Tibet) by claiming that such regions have been a part of China "since ancient times". Additionally, regions that are not currently under the jurisdiction of the PRC (Taiwan, wide swaths of maritime areas in the East and South China Sea, and Okinawa) have been claimed by Chinese government officials and scholars alike-- pointing to historical "knick-knacks" such as tribute payments, parched maps drawn over a thousand years ago by Chinese Imperial officials, and poems written by sailors as justification for Chinese claims over territory.
Even though Chinese territorial claims that are based on historical merit have little or no value under the pretext of international law, such claims warrant attention due to the fact that these claims are being made by a state that has the world's second largest economy, as well as an increasingly assertive military. The continuing "research" that is being done by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) with its Northeast Project, is a look inside the mindset of Beijing's territorial strategy towards Korea, as well as its method of contorting history in order to help achieve multiple foreign and domestic policy objectives.
What is the Northeast Project?
According to Yoon Hwy-tak, a Professor of Chinese History in South Korea, the project was begun by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in 2002. Coined the Northeast Project, the endeavor was an extension of the Ancient Civilization Research Center, created to conduct studies in the Chinese provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, with the premise that such studies were to "research and organize the culture, society, and social system of the Chinese mythic era of the Five Mythical Emperors, and the origin and formation of the Chinese nation and its relation to ancient civilization." The primary purpose of the study, however, was to show that the ancient Korean Kingdom of Koguryo was in fact part of "China". The most recent research that has been conducted by the project (as late as July of this year) has been deemed "closed" by Beijing and the findings not released to the public.
What is the Korean Kingdom of Koguryo?
The Kingdom of Koguryo was the largest of the three kingdoms that divided Korea until 668 AD. The Kingdom was said to have been founded around 37 BCE in the Tongge River Basin of present day North Korea. As shown by the image below, the Koguro Kingdom extended well into Manchuria, which is situated in modern day China.
In 2003, The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that on June 24th, the CCP journal Guangming Ribao stated that "Koguryo was an ancient nation established by a Chinese minority tribe", a notion that was repeated by the PLA Foreign Minister on multiple occasions following the publication. Later "findings" of the Northeast Project stated that the Korean Kingdoms that later followed the Koguryo: The Gija Chosun, Puyo, and Barhae--were also part of Chinese history and even stated that China's realm extended as far as Korea's Han River.
As noted by the image, the Han River lies deep within South Korea's borders, passing through Seoul.
Why does Beijing Rely so Heavily on "Historical Claims"?
The heavy reliance of history for contemporary Chinese territorial claims serves a number of purposes for Beijing. First, China's attempt to increasingly incorporate the Xia and Shang Dynasties into historical territorial claims is a savvy one due to the fact that neither has a clear beginning and end date, so therefore China's history is without a clear starting point, so it is able to expand deeper into history without constraints . Secondly, China uses its historical claims to serve a political purpose, which is to defend itself against a separate ethnic history developing within China among its multitude of minority ethnic groups. The PRC considers China to be a multi-ethnic state, and therefore all ethnic groups that are or have been part of the current territory that comprises the PRC are "Chinese" and therefore all people of the ancient Korean empires should be considered "Chinese". This rationale also extends to the ethnic groups within Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, Yunnan, and other provinces throughout China, as well as territories outside its current jurisdiction--allowing for historical "discoveries" from Chinese historians to be used in justifying future PRC territorial claims.
What are China's Concern's Regarding North Korean Territory? Isn't North Korea China's Most Reliable Ally?
Of the myriad territorial disputes that China is currently involved in, the PRC-DPRK border is an area that is most likely to directly involve China either politically, militarily, or both in the near future. The 880 mile (1,416 KM) border that China shares with the DPRK is important to China for a number of reasons.
Carla Freeman of John Hopkins University points out, "as a result of territorial losses in the 19th century, Chinese territory falls about 11 miles (17km) short of the sea, leaving China's Tuman Delta region landlocked." Freeman also points out that a railway bridge between Russia and North Korea at the mouth of the river acts as an effective block to any shipping at all on the river. As a result, China signed a thirty year lease with the DPRK for use of its port facilities in Chongjin.
China also has legitimate concerns about the stability of the current regime in the DPRK, and the fallout that could result in its collapse. A Recent RAND Corporation study regarding potential scenarios following a DPRK collapse theorized that most outcomes would involve the PRC on at least some level. In recent years the PLA has conducted exercises in which it has simulated the crossing of the Yalu river with the objective of rapidly securing territory inside the DPRK in the event of its collapse. If China were to have its military cross over into North Korea, it is likely to justify the action by citing the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance signed by China and North Korea in 1961. It is entirely plausible that Beijing is looking to use the "findings" of the Northeast Project in order to justify any future occupation or annexation of Korean territory, by claiming that such territory has been an "inseparable part of China since ancient times". Sound familiar?
Perhaps the issue of most concern to the leadership in Beijing is one of a domestic nature. Chinese thinking about security has always linked the management of frontier affairs to its domestic security, and within the past 5 years, the PRC has placed the Yanbian autonomous prefecture on its watch list of regional security concerns as a "sensitive area". The prefecture borders North Korea, and for centuries has been home for a sizable ethnically Korean population. Much in the same way that similar methods that have been used in provinces that have traditionally had the han Chinese ethnic group (the group that comprises 95% of the population of the PRC) in the minority, Yanbian has seen an influx of han migrants in recent years. The percentage of ethnic Koreans living in Yanbian has fallen from 60% in 1953 to 36% in 2000, and is expected to drop to 25% by 2015 in an effort to weaken Korean territorial claims. In the event of a unified Korea, the issue of Yanbian belonging to Korea would be one issue in which all Korean citizens could rally around---potentially a political nightmare for China to deal with. A number of nationalistic Koreans have called for the invalidation of the 1909 Gando Convention between Imperial Japan and the Qing Dynasty, in which Japan recognized China's claims to Jiandao, and Japan received railroad concessions in Northeast China.
The Gando Convention could also be a geo-political landmine for the PRC to negotiate, as the PRC has stated that other treaties signed during the Qing Dynasty period are invalid (including the treaty of Shimonoseki, which granted Japan sovereignty over Taiwan), due to such treaties being signed by the Qing while under duress.
In conclusion, China's constant practice of revisionist history needs to be understood in its proper context by international actors if Beijing's actions are to be understood and countered. Otherwise, Mongolia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Thailand could someday be considered a vital part of China.